The Roots of Reform
Adapted from the February 24, 2014, issue of National Review

Senator Mike Lee (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)


Ramesh Ponnuru

All of a sudden, Republicans are beginning to construct a new national agenda.

Every week, it seems, some Republican is announcing a new policy initiative — on health care, on taxes, on poverty. None of these announcements dominates the next day’s news stories. Together, though, they suggest that the party is in the process of a reorientation that will ultimately leave it stronger: better able to win elections, and better able to govern conservatively.

During President Obama’s first term, Republican politicians were not much interested in conservative policy initiatives, since after all they had no chance of getting them enacted. They were very interested in defeating Obama’s agenda, but did not tend to see the elaboration of an alternative one as crucial to that project. The party as a whole was consumed by a bitter debate over the legacy of George W. Bush. In reaction to that legacy and to Obama’s agenda, conservatives came in practice to regard the fight against federal overspending, Obamacare, and big government as nearly the entirety of the conservative program.

At the same time, Republicans were making a turn toward the rhetoric of commercial individualism in response to the economic collectivism they saw in Obama. Especially after Obama denigrated the social contributions of business owners in a 2012 campaign stop, Republicans extolled the virtues of entrepreneurs, suggesting that their liberation from taxes and regulations was the country’s foremost need. To the extent the 2012 Republican convention had a theme, that was it.

The esteem for businessmen was sometimes accompanied by an indifference to, disdain for, or despair about people in the bottom half of the income distribution. Many conservatives came to think that their political fortunes had fallen because these people had become accustomed to dependence on the federal government. Mitt Romney channeled these sentiments when he said that he had no shot at the votes of the 47 percent of the electorate who did not pay federal income taxes, because they no longer wished to take responsibility for themselves.

Throughout these years a number of conservative writers, many of them associated with this magazine, called for a different way of thinking about politics. The actual root of Republicans’ electoral weakness, they argued, was the public’s perception that they were not offering answers to the challenges facing most Americans today — a perception that was too often justified. The existing Republican agenda on economic issues was outdated, a set of solutions to the problems that the United States faced in the late 1970s.

When the Republican program of the last few decades was created, the threats to the American way of life came from high income-tax rates, runaway inflation, and street crime. Those threats have now receded, in part because of the success of that program, and been succeeded by new ones. The country is stratified by education: Opportunities for people without college degrees have been drying up, but the cost of those degrees keeps rising, and the number of people with them is no longer rapidly increasing. Take-home pay has been stagnant. Health insurance has been getting less affordable. Marriage is in decline. Entitlement programs designed decades ago now look impossible to afford in their current form.

The writers who made these points do not believe that there are pat governmental “solutions” to these problems. They do think there is a role for better public policy in addressing most of them. Sometimes that will mean simply reducing misguided government interventions that make things worse. Sometimes it will mean redesigning programs so that they advance rather than thwart Americans’ goals. Sometimes it will mean a mixture of both.

It followed from this way of looking at things that what Republicans most needed was not, as others were urging after electoral defeats, to move left on social issues or right on the size of government or both at once. They needed, rather, to make a fresh assessment of the national condition and find remedies, rooted in conservative insights, for what ailed it.

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam began this assessment with an article in The Weekly Standard that grew into a 2008 book, Grand New Party. They argued that with a creative conservative agenda Republicans could offer more to working-class voters than could Democrats and thereby cement a national majority. In 2009, Yuval Levin started National Affairs, where like-minded conservatives have shown how the Right’s agenda on a broad range of domestic issues could be updated. Several other writers — James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute (where I am a visiting fellow) has joined Douthat, Salam, and Levin as one of the most active — have taken up these themes.

This group soon came to be called “reform conservatives.” They adopted the label with some misgivings. It tended to paper over their disagreements. It made them seem like a faction seeking to dominate the Republican party and thus in need of a comprehensive agenda running the gamut from foreign to monetary policy. Worst, it made them appear more interested in reforming conservatism than in applying conservative reforms to the government. Still, the label stuck; and while the disagreements were real, so were the areas of consensus.

The reformers did not want to abandon the fight against overspending or big government, but did not believe it could be won without broadening the conservative agenda. To be complete, for example, the case against Obamacare needed to include an explanation of how we could broaden access to insurance without coercion, taxes, and federal micromanagement. Cutting federal spending, while very important, would not by itself help anyone trying to stretch her paycheck to take care of her family — and if Republicans had nothing to say about that vital question, she would listen to Democrats who did, even if what they said was not very sensible.

These conservatives tended as well to fault the Republican overemphasis on business. Entrepreneurial drive, and a public-policy climate conducive to it, is of course extremely important to the country’s success. But business ownership is not the whole story, and it is not a part of the story with which most people identify. Most people are not “job creators” or innovators, and have no particular desire to be. They are not looking to be rescued either by the government or by businessmen. They are, rather, people with plans and aspirations of their own, for themselves and for their families, most of which do not involve getting rich. Reform conservatism sought to take those plans seriously and determine whether obstacles put in their way by public policy could be removed.

During the first Obama term, not many Republican politicians were listening to these ideas. The reform conservatives’ biggest cause for cheer was Representative Paul Ryan’s success in getting congressional Republicans to support a reform to harness the power of competition to restrain the growth of Medicare costs. That proposal represented an updating of the conservative agenda to account for the massive increase in the cost of entitlements since the early 1980s.


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